Archive for the 'Problem Solving and Decision Making' Category

Setting Enhancement Priorities

first-pants-then-your-shoesYou have just implemented a system.   As always, the schedule forced the delay of some of the features and most are OK with that… for now.

The list of enhancements is long and includes both the requests of the patient user community, and the perhaps less patient executive team.  The executive list should get the same level of scrutiny as the user community list.  If there are objective measures behind all of the enhancements then it will make the conversation less tricky.  If not, then it is time for a Crucial Conversation.  If the executive list is implemented blindly without a comparative analysis of all of the enhancements, then there is a real risk of undermining the corporate objectives and any hope of confidence from the user community.

While you go about setting enhancement priorities, make sure the rigor behind the process of determining the priority is at the top of the list.

Valderrama: Model Consultant

carlos-valderrama-new-pink-curly-hairEven people who are not  soccer fans probably recognize this guy. For those who recognize his hair but not his name it is Carlos Valderrama.  And yes, his play was as impressive as his hair but not in the way you might expect.  In fact few may realize just what made him such a great soccer player and a model for consultants.

Valderrama scored relatively few goals (16) for a midfielder, but is the MLS league’s second all-time leader in assists (114) after Steve Ralston (121), a former teammate. In 2005, he was named to the MLS All-Time Best XI. He was also named one of the top players of the 20th century by Pelé in 1999.[9]. In 2000 Valderrama recorded the only 20+ assist season in MLS history—ending the season with 26—a record that remains intact today, and which MLS itself suggested was an “unbreakable” record in a 2012 article.[10].

Aside from his skill in holding the ball,  those who watched him will remember that he stationed himself at the center of the attack but frequently had his back to the opposing goal.  At first glance this seemed odd , but close inspection made it clear why he did it.  He is arguably the greatest play maker in the game.  He was constantly watching the movement of the players so that he could (and frequently did) make the perfect pass to a teammate who usually scored.  The most impressive example was in the 1990 World cup match against Germany where Columbia needed a tie to move to the next round. Germany scored in the 88th minute and it looked bleak for Columbia.  With only seconds remaining in extra time Valderrama delivered  a perfectly executed pass to Freddy Rincon who scored to tie the game.

To me he is the model for good consulting.  He was constantly watching the field like a good quarterback in football, looking for the opportunity.  When he saw it, he delivered the perfect pass that created opportunities for his team to win.

As consultants we are hired to see what might be hard for a client to see;  to see a way through challenges and obstacles and deliver solutions (sometimes in sudden death overtime) so the client can be successful.

If you are a consultant, I would not recommend a hairstyle change, but Valderrama is worth imitating.

Walter Mitty


If you read the original short story written by James Thurber you will get a very different story than what you see in Ben Stiller’s movie version.  The original story leaves the reader wondering what kind of delusional looser Walter Mitty is.  He seems feckless and spineless and the story ends that way.  It’s as if his day dreams are a coping mechanism to stave off the feelings of guilt and shame at the life he has trapped himself in.

Not so with the movie.  Although Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty may look dispensable to the obnoxious frat boys who are brought in to transition LIFE Magazine to a digital publication, the viewer senses something deeper in his character.  As the story unfolds, one sees that the trauma Walter Mitty experienced earlier in his life may have driven him to create a world that is rich in imagination yet small and controllable.  As the interactions with his family indicate however, he is not a social misfit.  His world is not so small that he cannot provide for the various needs of his elderly mother and irresponsible sister.

In so many hero stories there is a point where the protagonist says “this far and no further”.  What was it for Walter Mitty?  It might have been the inspirational gift from the intrepid photographer played by Sean Penn.  Maybe it was the imminent demise of the work both of them were doing?   Whatever it was, the situation clearly presented a line Walter Mitty would not be pushed past and it awakened in him a part of himself long-buried.  You might say he was brought back to life.

“Be properly scared and go on doing what you need to do.” – Flannery O’Connor

Is there a point you will not be pushed past; so urgent that you stop living in your head?

Thomas Merton said that “A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live”.

Are you living?

Wait! That is “knot” the way to solve the problem!

I came across Mike Myatt’s tweet @Mikemyatt about the Gordian institute @gordian_inst and it made me smile.  I am a sucker for metaphors, so the Gordian reference had me thinking about the story surrounding the Gordian knot.  Image

As you may recall, the Gordian knot refers to a legend involving Alexander the Great and a knot so hopelessly complex no one could untie it.  All believed the knot was so complex that only a the greatest of wise leaders could untie it. When confronted with this intractable problem, and unable to solve it conventionally, Alexander simply pulled out his sword and cut the knot.

Many consider this cheating.

It reminded me of a something we all do when confronted with a problem.  We give it a power that it neither possesses nor deserves.  It severely limits our creative thinking and makes simple solutions impossible to see or consider. After all, something so complex must require a very complex solution!  We drape the problem in assumptions that make it impossible to solve.  We study, we analyze… we sit there  “admiring the hell out of the problem” as Derek Sherry says.

Once, when my father was packing up his car after visiting with us, he was struggling to get his luggage to fit back in the trunk of the car.  He learned in the navy that the most efficient way to pack clothes was to roll them and he applied that thinking universally.  So, when he went to pack the large rubber floor mat he purchased while he was here he rolled it. However, the mat was not flexible enough to roll tightly and the width of it took up a lot of the room in the trunk.

My wife walked up, looked at the situation and said: “Why don’t you lay the mat out flat on the floor of the trunk?”

Talk about a sword to the heart of the problem (and his thinking)… Boy was my Dad mad.  It was almost like she was cheating.


100_2643 Continue reading ‘Exits’

Oh Snap!

I am in the midst of one of the most frustrating examples of what can happen when you jump to conclusions. My mom is 87 years old and several years ago she suffered a stroke that left her with speech aphasia which makes it very hard for her to find the words when she tries to talk. This is extremely frustrating for her. I had no idea it could get worse until she went to the hospital. She was hit with a barrage of strangers asking her a lot of health questions that she was unable to answer. One doctor ended up diagnosing her with advanced dementia. She does not have it, but speech aphasia is a symptom for both stroke and dementia. The conclusion she jumped to ended up causing a lot of other problems with all aspects of her recovery. Here is what I tried to take away from the experience; they seemed obvious to me until I encountered the problem solving and decision-making processes of medical doctors entrusted with my Mom’s health care.

GET THE FACTS: If you are a consultant coming in to a company to make an assessment, you had better make sure you are talking to the people who are in the best position to help you understand the facts of the current business state.

RESIST THE URGE TO MAKE SNAP JUDGMENTS: If it looks like the same problem you have seen many times before, don’t flatter yourself; take the time to be sure there is not an equally plausible explanation. If you have been called in, don’t assume the solution will be obvious even if the symptoms look like those of a problem you have seen in the past.

BE THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE: If you think you have an answer to a problem it is worth the time to do what fraud examiners do when confronted with a case. To guard against the risk of developing a theory and then using all of the data to support it they make an objective case against their theory. You should never get too complacent in your own ability to see what is happening. It is better for you to adopt an attitude that says, “What am I overlooking?” than have your client point it out for you.


I heard an interview with Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, who wrote the book “Exit”.  It is a book about the circumstances surrounding our exits; everything from saying goodbye on your way to work, moving, new jobs, divorces, even death.  She has made the following observations:
  1.  We focus more on entries than exits in our life.
  2. Although we can pinpoint when we are done, there is often an iterative process indicating we have been leaving long before we exit.
  3. Organizations (Military, Catholic Church) that have rituals to accompany exits tend to understand and manage them better.
  4. Professions like oncology and pediatrics involve a lot of exits.  The doctors who thrive in these specialties have done so by developing relationships, not by keeping professional distance.
This made me wonder about my own work life.
  1. Do I focus more on securing the job then on how I will progress through and perhaps out of the job?
  2. Am I aware of the myriad ways I broadcast my exit long before I leave?
  3. Do I regularly think about what I am moving toward in my career? Am I managing it or am I along for the ride?
  4. As a boss do I fall into the trap of maintaining a professional distance from people to make the exits (like layoffs) easier to deal with?

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Dan Clark

Dan Clark

Principal of Bowline Consulting, process designer/fixer, wireless telecom veteran, addicted pick up soccer player, fly fisher, backpacker, beer brewer, guitar player, choir singer, recovering bag piper

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